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Democrat January 2007 (Number 100)

EU launches attack
on trade union rights

Report by Brian Denny

Following the postponement of any decision on the infamous Vaxholm case currently before the European Court of Justice, the European Commission has launched a Green Paper calling for the abolition of trade union rights as we know them.

Unison picket

The Green Paper, ominously called “Modernising labour law to meet the challenges of the 21st century”, is part of a short consultation ending in March aimed at giving life to a White Paper the Commission produced last year on ‘flexicurity’. This claims that if workers embrace “flexibility”, job “security” will follow. In the real world, of course, acquired labour rights represent the result, transposed into law, of trade-union battles of the strongest workers to be shared to protect weaker workers.

However, the Green Paper ignores any value of social cohesion or consensus reached between organised labour and employers in the member states and casually opts to put an end to collective bargaining and for the complete atomisation of workers.

Court case

The Vaxholm case also directly challenges trade union collective bargaining rights. This particular case concerns Latvian firm Laval operating in Sweden using low-cost Latvian labour in contravention of Swedish law. Swedish workers took industrial action in protest, arguing that the company had breached Swedish laws as pay and conditions are determined through collective agreements.

The European Commission openly backs the Latvian firm’s social dumping and union-busting activities and claims that Swedish labour laws contravene article 49 of the EU treaties on free movement. As a result, if this anti-trade union Green Paper is adopted it would clearly make the need to rule on Vaxholm redundant as collective bargaining would be deemed illegal. The Green Paper claims that “stringent employment protection tends to reduce the dynamism of the labour market”. It goes on to suggest that contractor obligations to monitor employment legislation among sub-contractors “may serve to restrain subcontracting by foreign firms and present an obstacle to the free provision of services in the internal market”.

Let Single Market rip

Such a course would allow the development of the single market unhindered from ‘traditional’ (meaning bad in EU-speak) forms of trade union rights such as collective bargaining. This logic would institutionalise social dumping and clearly drive down wages. This was the reasoning behind PM Tony Blair’s comments recently on how “today’s European model has to be less about traditional forms of protection and more about modern forms of empowerment” and other meaningless phrases.

TUC kidology

Alarm bells should also be ringing following the launch of a joint TUC/CBI campaign to encourage the adoption of “flexible working practices”. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber joined in the kidology by claiming that such practices would give employees “more choice” and “people would get to see more of their friends and families”. A more sober assessment came from Amicus general secretary Derek Simpson who warned in the Times (22/1/07) that “The Green Paper hides behind the language of equality to propose measures to force exploitation and insecurity on to every worker in Europe”. The EU Green Paper, the Vaxholm case and the drive for a single market all cruelly expose the class nature of the EU and the woeful limitations of the concept of newtered social partnership espoused by the European TUC and others.

*You can/could read the green paper here